Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:39 pm on 13th May 2021.

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Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP 3:39 pm, 13th May 2021

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baronesses on their maiden speeches today, which indicate that there will be significant contributions from both of them in the days ahead.

On the proposal for voter ID, my noble friend the Minister referred to the fact that, in Northern Ireland, this system, or variations of it, have been in force for some 35 years, with photo ID being introduced in the early noughties. I have listened to a number of noble Lords and noble Baronesses today, and indeed before today’s speeches, expressing concern and the view that this is suppressing, or could suppress, people’s ability to vote. I have to say that our experience over many years does not support that concern. Indeed, while I do not quite agree with my noble friend Lord Hannan, he nevertheless makes some useful points.

In addition, national insurance numbers are used on the application form, not only driving licences and passports. To deal with people who do not possess these—and quite a number of people do not—we introduced an electoral identity card, which is issued by the Electoral Office. Indeed, to reach out to people, it physically took vehicles round housing estates and areas to ensure that people could get photographs taken and have access to these cards. If my noble friend wishes to talk to some of us who have been using the system for many years, we would be only too happy to help.

It is not all perfect; there are several aspects of the voting system that are open to abuse. We found that postal voting was open to abuse. For many years, to get a postal vote here, you had to make an application and have a witness sign the forms to ensure that it was in fact bona fide. The other area is proxy voting; people are still abusing that. People ask what evidence there is to support this, but I would point out that it is almost a hidden crime, in that it is very hard to spot. If my noble friend wishes to pursue this with some of us, we would be very happy to help. I am more concerned about people abroad voting. That requires a lot of close scrutiny before we sign it off into law.

The other point I want to make is about devolution generally in the UK. Whitehall has had a “devolve and forget” policy; it devolves power and then leaves it, and there is then no link between it and what happens. I described it as creating giant ATMs in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh—people do not have any idea where the money comes from. I say to my noble friend that it might be useful if, annually—or whatever period was felt appropriate—a leaflet or something online is produced so that people can see where the cash comes from for the devolved regions. You do not have to make a ceremony of it, but I think people need to understand the arithmetic of the UK. That would be helpful.

With regard to the points from the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, about new constitutional proposals, I do not necessarily accept everything that his group has produced but at least they have been thinking. It is perfectly clear that the system as it functions at the moment is not working. For our colleagues in Scotland, even though the electorate is virtually evenly divided, it is clear that money is not going to be the only issue. There are also issues of values, identity and so on, which need to be looked at carefully. The constitution needs to change, but in a way that does not make matters worse, as in some cases devolution did, particularly in Scotland.

I support devolution but I believe that this Parliament must understand what is happening and be sufficiently flexible to adjust to ensure that our union survives. I fear that people might be carried away by rhetoric and regret a decision to leave the United Kingdom at a future point.